Professor Sydney Duder on her 70 Year Journey at McGill

To mark the 100th anniversary of the School of Social Work, Professor Duder reflects on the past 70 years and her hopes for the future.

Dr. Sydney Duder has been a part of the McGill community for more than 70 years. A Professor at the School of Social Work since 1972, she also completed her BSc, MSW and PhD degrees at McGill. At 97 years old, she has witnessed many changes to the School, the university and to the overall profession. To mark the 100th anniversary of the School of Social Work, we sat down with Professor Duder to discuss this special occasion and listen to her story.

Sydney is truly a source of inspiration for us. She always pushes us to think about the benefits of our projects. Her favourite sentence is: How is it going to make the world better? Every day she stops by my office to share words of encouragement on my work. - Delphine Collin-Vézina, Director for the Centre for Research on Children and Families and Associate Professor at the School of the Social Work.

How and why did you decide to pursue this profession?

I’ve been teaching at McGill since 1972! But honestly, I simply needed something to do. I had worked since the war, and when I got married to a diplomat, we moved abroad to Japan and had a couple of children. We moved back to Montreal in 1964, where my husband was posted as the Canadian representative to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), and I found myself bored and unemployed. I consulted my sister, who had just received her MSW (Master of Social Work). She hooked me up with a volunteer opportunity at the YWCA (Young Women Christian Association), and I soon realized that the important people were the professionals.

When I was a diplomatic wife, I was frequently invited to dinners and would often have a chance to meet lawyers, academics and judges. I considered Law School, until I spoke with the Dean of the Law Faculty, who made it obvious that I had none of the required qualifications! My sister convinced me to give social work a chance, but when I applied, they did not seem interested in me either. However, the Admissions Director made a deal with me: if I passed three out of the four required courses in social sciences, they would consider me. I passed them all, and they admitted me.

You completed all your degrees at McGill and chose to teach at McGill after graduating. Is there a particular reason why you chose McGill to fulfill your academic career?

Family legacy was the biggest influence on my decision to stay with McGill. My father was a businessman, but he had done a lot of volunteer work. He was involved in the establishment of the Bachelor of Social Work program in Ottawa; when there was a period where the School of Social Work was inactive at McGill, he was on the committee that got it back into the university. My sister got her MSW in ’64, the same year that my father got an Honorary Degree here. You asked me why I stayed at McGill: there was no reason to go anywhere else! Since my husband and family were all here, McGill was the obvious place.

You’ve been actively teaching at McGill for quite a long time. What has kept you going? What is your motivation for teaching and doing research?

I think the biggest influence for me had to be the Psychology 101 course that I took with Dr. Hebb in my qualifying year. He practically opened up a brand new world to me! I was impressed with what he taught in class and by all the new things I learned, that I had no trouble switching mentally from science to social science. The other qualifying courses were not quite as thrilling; it was definitely Psychology with Dr. Hebb that did it for me.

Can you describe the kind of work and research that you are doing?

For quite a long time I hadn’t done research myself but instead helped other people with their research projects. What usually happened was someone wanted to start a research project but did not know how. Since I have been teaching research methods for quite a long time, I tried to help them get started. My role has been that of a mentor, helping colleagues or students make projects happen by putting the pieces together. One of our directors once gave me a lecture about how I wasn’t doing myself any good by going through life as a “second author”! I regret not having focused on a particular problem of my own earlier on in my career.

What is the hardest challenge you have ever encountered in your career?

I would say that teaching a class has been the biggest challenge for me. I don’t think that I am a good classroom teacher; I simply don’t have the social skills. I am a mechanic; I can solve logical problems easily, and do the statistical analyses, but it was hard for me to go into a classroom, see a bunch of faces and then have to say something interesting.

After a while, I concluded that it really didn’t matter that much (laughs). I’ve been teaching statistics and social research, so you can see it was not a very sexy topic. You are not going to look at my course evaluations but if you did, you’d see that my students never said they liked my course or that they’d recommended it to others. What they did say usually though, was that I gave clear instructions, I was available and I got the grades in on time.

When did you feel most accomplished during your time at McGill?

What I’m good at - or rather what I think I’m good at - is research supervision. I felt most accomplished when a thesis I supervised got on the Dean’s Honours List (there used to be such a list, but not anymore).

Generally, I feel accomplished when I am able to come up with the solution to a problem; there is not anything more exciting to me. I try to figure out the cause of the problem and identify possible corrective actions. That’s also how I try to teach program evaluation to students.

In your opinion, how should further research and development in the discipline of social work be facilitated?

It seems to me perfectly obvious, and I think most people would agree, that we ought to be paying more attention to prevention and program evaluation. I believe we focus way too much on the treatment side of social work, and don’t place enough importance on preventing problems. I think all the problems in the world - except possibly sunspots - are due to human behaviour. Although many businesses try to change behaviour for commercial reasons (sales, etc.), shouldn’t social work be trying to improve social behaviour? We may think of the behaviour that we are changing as limited to family relations, but social work can also be about changing behaviour on a collective level. I’m thinking of how policies that social work develops could affect and influence groups, organizations and nations. This is where I think further work can be done within social work. I tell my students that they should try to think of ways to use their professional skills to save the world!

Another area that I think is worth more effort is cost-benefit analysis. For example, I haven’t seen any calculations of the cost of environmental problems. This would clearly show that floods and fires cost a great deal. One of my colleagues works with refugees and immigrants; she sits on a provincial committee that deals with funding education. A couple of years ago we were talking, and she was upset about the fact that the government wouldn’t fund school fees for non-registered immigrant children. I mentioned, if they insist on not funding these programs, it would probably cost more to have uneducated people. A couple of months later, she said she had followed up on this with a cost-benefit analysis and she gave the report to the committee. The report did influence their decision; the government did change at least part of their policy regarding such funding. The point here is that if we were to have more cost-benefit analysis done on important issues, this would have the potential of bringing real changes.

This year marks the 100th anniversary for the School of Social Work at McGill. Can you share your thoughts on this occasion and your hopes for the school?

The School of Social Work has done remarkably well. I mean, if you consider all the things in the past century that we’ve accomplished, reaching out to Indigenous people is one that should be noted. We have started a big program focusing on Indigenous people, making the School the first department that had pretty much brought McGill’s attention to the Indigenous community, and it certainly deserves credit for that.

Other than that, there is the international social work aspect. My colleague Professor Myriam Denov has received substantial awards recently; the School is now much more present in the international social work scene than it was decades ago. We now have a new program in Couple and Family Therapy. We also have a Doctoral program, which is new, and we have graduated quite a few people with PhDs in Social Work. In fact, if you look around, a lot of the people who are now running other Canadian schools of social work seem to be our graduates. Another non-consequential point may have some social significance; many of the women coming into our PhD program are promptly getting pregnant and bringing babies to the School’s social events.

I believe the School now offers a very successful treatment program. Still, I cannot stress enough that I would personally like to see a push for more policy, more preventive social work and more program evaluation. I believe this could help the School achieve even more than we already have in our impressive progress during the past one hundred years. The School of Social Work has walked on, and will continue to walk on a path that aims to change our society for the better.

Back to top